Leadership consists of opposing strengths, and most leaders have a natural tendency to overdevelop one at the expense of its counterpart. The resulting imbalance diminishes their effectiveness. But leaders who work to guard against such lopsidedness can increase their versatility and their impact.
Modern models of leadership generally acknowledge that effective leaders must possess a number of seemingly contradictory qualities and skill sets. However, say the authors, inadequate performance is usually defined as displaying a lack of those qualities and skills; the idea that performance problems can just as easily spring from taking a given behavior to an extreme has received far less attention. Therefore, those models miss the chance to identify imbalance, which in the authors’ view is the most common impediment to developing effective leadership. The authors view versatility, the absence of imbalance, as the key to high performance levels. Versatile leaders are able to continually adjust their behavior, deftly applying the right approach or blend of approaches to the right degree for the circumstances at hand.
The authors’ research, comprising comprehensive assessments of scores of senior managers, indicates that most managers, when presented with two opposing approaches, such as forceful vs. enabling leadership, will lean strongly toward one and be biased against the other. Employing a 360-degree survey they designed to measure such imbalance, called the Leadership Versatility Index, they then demonstrate clearly that high performance levels are correlated with balance and versatility. The challenge for the versatile leader is thus to meet what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the test of a first-rate intelligence”: to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
The authors conclude with a discussion of how leaders can begin to improve themselves and those they manage. They identify a number of root causes of imbalance, ranging from uneven skill development, skewed mental models and one-sided values to fear of inadequacy and a natural human tendency to polarize issues, and they suggest ways to moderate these factors.